HL Deb 08 November 1988 vol 501 cc535-8

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any further plans to deal with the increasing incidence of homelessness.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that a review of the current homelessness legislation is under way. We are making every effort to bring this to a speedy conclusion, but the House will appreciate that these are complex and sensitive issues. I cannot yet say when we shall be ready to announce conclusions, but we perceive the urgency.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. He must be aware that the numbers are still rapidly increasing and that among those who are homeless there is an increasing percentage of people who are disabled in one form or another. Bearing in mind the recent statements made by a series of Ministers that the Government's policy is to target aid in the areas of greatest need, will the Minister consider doing something urgently prior to publication of the findings of the report in order to try to alleviate some of the suffering that will be endured by those underprivileged people during the forthcoming winter?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. We have targeted aid by giving an extra £74 million to local authorities in the past few months. That has resulted in an increase in the number of available dwellings.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, is the Minister aware that since 1979 the number of council houses sold for owner-occupation is nearly 600,000 in excess of those constructed during the same period? Does he think that that has any bearing on the number of people who are homeless? Secondly, can the Minister tell us which proposals within the Housing Bill can possibly affect the outrageously high level of homelessness and can help to bring it down?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the whole point of the Housing Bill is to encourage the private sector to rent property which we want to be built but which at the moment has not been built, or property which is empty. As the noble Baroness will be aware, there is a sufficient number of empty properties to offer a great opportunity which local authorities can take, with the encouragement of the private sector, in order to give added help to the homeless.

Lord Carter

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that in a review of the legislation the Government will take account of the fact that something like 50 per cent. of the homeless people in the country are in the rural areas? They are not all on the inner cities. Can he say what the Government intend to do about that situation?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we shall of course take account of homelessness in the rural areas. I cannot tell the noble Lord what we shall do about it because we have not yet completed the review.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the report of the Audit Commission on the extremely grave problem of homelessness at the present time? Is he further aware that the figures show that the number of homeless has risen from 56,750 in 1979 to 112,730 today? Can he say how many houses are likely to be built by local authorities with the comparatively small sum of money that the Government are now allocating to them? That is the core of the problem. Does he agree that the Government are totally responsible for this situation in spite of their boasts about having a healthy economy?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the Audit Commission report is at a preliminary draft stage. There is a little work still to do before it is produced in its final form, at which point we shall carefully consider the conclusions.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition raises an important point about local authority new build. There is the equally important issue of the private sector housing association new build. As your Lordships will be aware, we have been able to announce an increase in funding of 80 per cent. for the housing associations within the next three years. There has also been encouragement for the private sector to build. The number of house building starts is at a record high since 1973. Of particular concern to local authorities also is the number of empty properties. In order to benefit the homeless we are trying to achieve a greater uniformity of performance among some of the local authorities.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm that when the inquiries into the homelessness legislation take place he will also take into account the enormous amount of money that is being spent at this time on bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which can sometimes last for as long as a year? It is quite outrageous that public money should be spent in that way and not in putting a more permanent roof over the heads of those people.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The bed-and-breakfast situation is very worrying. It would be resolved by a reduction in the number of empty properties. If local authorities re-let their empty properties within three weeks it would produce another 20,000 units, which would amply cover the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is perhaps the line one should take.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell the House what reduction in empty properties in the ownership of various government departments has taken place? Those properties far exceed the number of empty houses that are held by local authorities. Does the Minister recall that the last time we raised the issue of homelessness he said that he would look into the number of properties held by various government departments? Will he give us some information this afternoon and not keep comparing figures with the few empty properties that are held by local authorities?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. I said that I would look into the matter. I can now give her the answer that I could not give her at that time. As I understand it, there are about 20,000 government properties that are empty. They were built for a specific purpose and are not necessarily in the right areas. At the latest count there were something like 110,000 empty local authority properties.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, my final question relates to London, although the problem does not apply to London alone; it is showing up in rural areas. Is the Minister aware of the report published last week by the organisation, Crisis at Christmas, which calculates that the number of people sleeping on the streets in London—at present 10,000 to 11,000—will double over Christmas? The objective of my question is to ask the Minister—whom I know to be a compassionate, humane man—to appeal to the Chancellor to make some funding available now for the organisations, charitable associations, and local authorities who are grappling with this terrible problem. Otherwise the problem will be seen, quite correctly, only as a national scandal.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord will be fully aware that those who sleep rough, or the single homeless, are not strictly homeless under the definition of the 1977 Act about which the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, knows so much. The noble Lord started the Act as a Private Member's Bill in another place.

Notwithstanding that, we are doing much to provide emergency beds by the DSS and the Housing Corporation's programme for hostels and shared housing.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that one is just as cold if one is homeless but not within the definition in the Act as under such definition?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that is absolutely right. However, the Question related to homelessness and the specific definition in the 1977 Act excludes those people.

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